Adapter: Jude Christian
Director: Tinuke Craig
The National Theatre’s 65-minute Hamlet is an absolute gem. Aimed at 8-12 year olds, there’s a buzz of excitement before it begins when the actors appear and wander round chatting to the audience. But the hush that descends from the start endures, showing that everyone is truly spell-bound. For adults, Hamlet can seem intimidating because of all its cultural baggage – do you need an English Literature degree to understand it? But Jude Christian’s adaptation reminds us that first and foremost, Hamlet is a great story.
There’s a cast of eight, easily identifiable by their clothes. Vedi Roy and Claire Redcliffe as Claudius and Gertrude wear crowns and identical frog-green suits. David Ahmad is a pony-tailed, pink-shod Polonius, Jessica Alade in dungarees and silver sandals gives Ophelia a bit of edge and Chanel Waddock plays Laertes as her more feisty sister. Dressed in bright crimson, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Efé Agwele and Curtis Callier) are terrific clowns. The vivid colours of costumes and set mark the contrast with Kiren Kebaili-Dwyer’s Hamlet: he alone wears his suit of inky black.
Devices like these maintain the clarity of the plot. Christian makes some necessary adjustments and one inspired idea is to begin the play with the funeral of Hamlet’s father. Solemnity doesn’t overwhelm us – one nice touch is that the chief mourners bear floral tributes spelling out ‘King’ and ‘Dad’. Claudius woos Gertrude and together they cast aside their black cloaks for an all-singing, all-dancing wedding, the song lyrics introducing us to the characters and spelling out the story so far. The ghost, when it appears, is surprisingly scary: there was some hiding behind hands amongst the younger audience members.
But for all the fun, Christian doesn’t fight shy of the original text, giving choice extracts to the characters as well as some modern interpolation which fits in smoothly. Hamlet uses his shortened soliloquys to speak directly to the audience and again it is obvious the kids are gripped. They have no difficulty understanding that Hamlet is acting mad – that perhaps he actually goes mad. And director Tinuke Craig knows exactly when to vary the pace. Making mad Hamlet cosy up to Claudius pretending he’s a cat goes down a storm.
There is a great piece of audience participation when we are told that the Players are about to perform The Murder of Gonzago. We’re encouraged to imitate the sounds of wind, water and wild animals and – a huge success this – repeatedly shout ‘Murderer!’ at Claudius as he’s forced to play out his secret deed. A simple device, but one that really brings home the importance of revenge.
Why this adaptation works so well is that Christian doesn’t sell the original short. Unlike the frantic stage business that is the dominant note of summer-pub-theatre Shakespeare, this Hamlet gives a strong sense of the underlying depth of the play. Hugely entertaining for kids and adults alike.
Runs until 6 April 2022